17th June 2021


Tonight we rest

Over the past year, there has been global momentum to challenge systemic racism, oppression and injustice. The death of George Floyd reignited the fight for racial justice in the midst of a global pandemic which was already showcasing deep rooted racism in our societies. As the movement grew in size, momentum and participation, the international development sector and humanitarian sector were prompted to hold up the mirror to themselves. To understand the ways in which racism and colonialism seeped through the sectors. Self-identifying women of colour in particular have taken up the role of educators, advocators, and more. In many cases pushing aside their personal feelings, struggles and experiences to fight for greater equality, understanding and to make change happen. This has come at a cost, for some, this cost has been personal or professional or both. Often feeling exhausted, burnout, not heard yet determined. Tonight we rest seeks to promote the idea that rest and wellbeing are central to a feminist recovery and rebuilding. We must begin to recognise that we are running a marathon and not a sprint, and for transformational change to take place, changemakers cannot sacrifice their health and wellbeing. Therefore, this poem is an attempt to encourage our community to have a serious conversation about maintaining momentum and looking after ourselves.

Tonight we rest, is a spoken word poetry piece that speaks from the collective voice of self-identifying women of colour. The poetry piece has been created based off of research conducted with 10 self-identifying women of colour of varying ages and who have been working on race-related issues including but not limited to diversity, inclusion, equity, belonging, inclusion, decolonising/decoloniality in the international development, humanitarian sectors or fields closely related. These incredible women are feminists, activists, practitioners, researchers, champions, advocates, project managers, analysts, mothers, wives, partners, friends, daughters and more juggling their professional work, their passion for social justice and their personal lives. Tonight we rest reflects their perspectives on the role and importance rest and wellbeing plays in their lives alongside the challenges they experienced working on these issues during the pandemic. Additionally, the poem shares practices and advice to the sisterhood.

Tonight we rest takes you through the journey of the past year and provides an insight to how some women have been affected and how they have managed to focus on prioritising their wellbeing. Though it is simple to say that we need to focus on rest and wellbeing and practice this, it can be incredibly challenging. Therefore, this poem is not to make anyone feel guilty or bad but rather to urge you to consider the ways in which you may be able to incorporate rest and wellbeing in your activism and to find ways of looking after yourself.

Though, this poem has been written by Nikita Yasmin Shah, the voice of the poem comes from the collective women who have participated in this research piece. Nikita does not claim to speak from the individual experiences of any one woman as these experiences are entirely individual and personal.

Nikita Yasmin Shah

Nikita YAsmin Shah is a poet, founder of Hyphen Poetry, and a Consultant and Project Manager working on social justice issues. Nikita has bridged her practice of art and professional work to develop a performative decolonial lens. She has a background in migration, modern slavery, decoloniality, climate and gender-related issues. Nikita uses poetry to explore complex themes, to encourage self-reflection and dialogue. Most recently, she has published ‘Oh Crumbs!’ in Are We Europe's Colonialism Issue, ran a course on Poetic Healing and ran a number of workshops on decolonising identity. She has also co-led a series of ‘Unlearning Sessions’ to promote anti-racist and decolonial practices in the workplace; creating a safe, open and trusting space for colleagues to critically challenge and re-imagine international development. Nikita holds an MA in Global Governance from the University of Waterloo, Balsillie School of International Affairs. With over 15 years of experience as a Bollywood dancer and over 10 years as a dance teacher, Nikita has bridged her practice of art and professional work to develop a performative decolonial lens.

Follow Nikita on social media:

Website: https://www.hyphenpoetry.com/about

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nikitayshah/

Twitter: @Shahdot

Instagram: @hyphenpoetry

Tonight we rest

By Nikita Yasmin Shah

I. In the starting blocks

I, like many of you, am overwhelmed, exhausted and in pain

you see, the past year has been rather intense as we all know

isolated during the pandemic, away from loved ones,

some days, in mourning, over lost ones

in the midst of one of the most challenging moments of our lives,

when the response to the pandemic lacked consideration

for ethnic minorities – global majorities

both in the UK and the lands abroad.

when the response did not take into consideration

culture, race, language and local communities.

when the response allowed for more and more

people of colour to remain at risk and in many cases left them to die.

we saw racial disparities peak through the cracks in our society.

It hurts, to be reminded that the colour of your skin affords you your privilege

and then, in the midst of the pandemic,

we heard about a different gasp for air,

not one due to covid but one due to police brutality and systemic racism.

we heard the words echo

I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.

for 8 minutes and 46 seconds

George Floyd fought for his life

you see, it took for another body, another Black body for them to pay attention

we remembered those that were unjustly murdered

Breonna Taylor, shot in her own home

Ahmaud Arbery, killed whilst jogging

Tamir Rice, a child, playing with a toy gun.

it saddens me to say the list goes on…

global outrage ensued as people stood in solidarity,

as people said their names, as people marched and chanted Black Lives Matter.

we called out injustice, white supremacy, and oppression,

embroidered deep within the quilt of our society.

those with enough privilege were shocked to hear

the lived experiences of Black people and the global majority,

shocked to hear that the world we live in was not in fact equal and just for all

but, in fact, a world entrenched so deeply in the colonial legacies of empire,

so perfectly hiding racism in blindsight.

II. the race

there you rose, to the challenge,

taking the baton from generations before us,

who fought for the same movement dressed in different attire

tucking away the emotional burden, deep hurt, fatigue and anxiety.

out from the shadows of leaders who stayed silent - protected by their armour of privilege

there you rose to hold up the mirror to the international development and humanitarian sectors,

to continue your activism and to make change a reality

for many, feelings of both determination and frustration exist in parallel

determined to make this change happen and yet frustrated that once again, our voices, once silenced over the years whilst sharing these exact messages are only being picked up now, why?

a lot was said on behalf of racialised communities,

yet when racialised communities spoke, whose ears did these words fall upon?

why is it so hard to just for once, listen, hear and reflect on our challenges?

sector to sector, role to role, People of colour were sidelined again

organisers struggled to convene people;

limited resources and a lack of access to online spaces only continued to spread the divide and disparities from the physical to the digital

cuts to the aid budget, cost people their funding, their jobs and more

out came the calls for diversity hires that looked at us only as tokens

disregarding our merit so that organisations could be perceived as ‘diverse.’ And in other instances, despite our merit, we watched privileged cis-gendered white men not only gain employment but climb ranks and earn more than women of colour

it is exhausting having to continuously prove yourself over and over again

bound still by isolation, our collective communication left to mere zoom calls

Zoom calls for work, Zoom calls for socialising, Zoom calls for organising, Zoom calls for checking in

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom

the lines blur between the personal and the professional

we run our sessions, hold our events, and share our resources. And though, we work remotely and hold these safe spaces for discussions from our safer spaces, home

we struggle to read the room, struggle with the pushback from colleagues and leaders, who value another meeting over doing the work and fail to communicate their absences

ignoring all the effort, and emotional labour required for us to show up

the load gets heavier, testing the limit of women of colour, especially Black women

we are asked to show up as our whole authentic selves,

for a crowd who still doesn’t fully listen to our lived experiences

for a crowd, who despite the invite, still cannot accept our whole selves

for a crowd who does not pay us fairly for our particular skill set, YES! Working on these issues do require a particular skillset

for a crowd who tone polices our words and phrases

for a crowd, privileged, so privileged to say,

‘I do not want to sit and be reminded of my privilege – I have done my work’

the words of white feminism echoed

to simply disengage is privilege, a privilege we simply do not have

more work is to be done.

III. endurance and recovery

but let me remind you, we are running a marathon not a sprint

rest is radical. rest is resistance. rest is resilience

rest is a part of the marathon

we need to start prioritising our wellbeing and make room to rest and recover

without guilt, without shame, without hesitation

and whilst sometimes, rest may feel like you aren’t being active and doing enough,

remember you can’t pour from an empty cup

I get it, it's hard

it seems to be a luxury that we cannot always afford

often, we let the scales slip out of balance

on one side our wellbeing on the other the weight of what is left to be done

so, what do we do when there is no one else to share the load?

we carry on

and in a whisper, we tell ourselves,

I got this, just need to get through this and then tonight I can rest

and when the time to rest comes,

we lay our head on the pillow ready to surrender to a sweet sleep

and instead, the rush of tasks unfinished, the tragedies of the world and the distance left to run

play over and over and over in our minds

tired, disregarded, frustrated

we try to drown the noise out by watching tv

but what good is it to be there physically, in person, whilst our minds drift away?

they say we need to unplug, unplug from the distractions and to focus inward

but where do you go when it is all there, inward, cascading in our every thought;

perching on our shoulders, the weight we carry?

to the sisterhood, thats where you go

you are part of a wider community so,

the impact you want to have need not lie on your shoulders alone

so, take the pressure off yourself and only give out as much as you can

be kind to yourself and grant yourself permission to lighten the load,

to take a break and engage in activities that will help you refuel

pick up that book and let yourself get lost in a whole new world

exercise, go for a walk, have a little dance, just get your body moving

cook a meal and nourish yourself.

find a way to ground, rebalance, reconnect and if

it feels right for you, focus on spirituality

and I know you might think,

‘this sounds lovely, but where do I find the time amidst all the plates I have spinning

well, invest in yourself, in your mind and body

create a routine, something so strong it becomes muscle memory

a focus on wellbeing should not arise only in times when you are exhausted and burnout

let us practice rest and focus on well-being

even when we are not stressed or overwhelmed as a way to prevent

and not as a way to treat symptoms

let us be intentional and do the things we enjoy,

so when we turn on the tv, let us not escape from the noise,

let us escape into a world of joy, let the noise become laughter and pleasure

put down that phone, get off social media and unplug from updates

give yourself permission to not feel anxious about the world,

tonight, the weight is lighter, shared by others

but isn’t it ironic that when a woman of colour says she is

burnt out or overwhelmed or exhausted that this is considered a personal failure?

when really the system failed her!

as though to say she is unable to manage her stress well enough

or that she doesn’t know how to relax

isn’t it ironic that resilience tools like yoga, meditation and self-care are overstretched to be the ‘solution’ for the mental stress induced by systemic racism, sexism, and hatred for our bodies?

placing the burden of the solution on the person experiencing discrimination

when in fact an overemphasis on these tools absolves leaders from their responsibilities to fix toxic work cultures and discovering ways to bring wellness into our jobs outside of just physical activities

so again, boundaries are important, you are not responsible for making all the change happen

think about who is responsible, for what, and pass the load that is not yours along

in times where you feel alone, think about who you can lean on for support

it's ok if you can’t get that email out today or if you don’t get that meeting you needed

reconsider the role of rest and wellbeing in your lives

they are intertwined, existing not only in the personal but also in the professional

whilst wellbeing as a concept may still be new and understood as commodified acts of self-care

it truly goes beyond that. Rest requires being intentional

both require discipline

to balance out the scales, ideally tipping in the favour of peace and calm

not just surviving but actually thriving

and it might sound like a cliché but,

sometimes saying yes to yourself means saying no to others,

you don’t need to take on all the burden

be courageous and take mental health days to look after yourself

please, keep choosing yourself! It is not selfish for you to want ‘me’ time

away from the expectation and permission of others

please know that it is ok to fail, just get back up

recognise that your sense of self-worth is not tied to just one thing

to help, choose to be in spaces where you feel affirmed, heard, seen, valued and safe

keep speaking up, your voice matters. And when you do, remember, it is fair for you to expect to be treated with dignity and respect to not have assumptions made about your opinions

and in the workplace, it is just to expect fair pay for your experience including lived

to receive recognition for your own work,

to be given fair opportunities for professional development and advancement. You deserve to have someone check in on you and ask if you are ok

especially during troubling times and

it is ok to say right now is not the time, I need space

find the right relationships in your life,

be in a space where you are supported with your

mental health, familial responsibilities, your dreams and ambitions,

be in a space where you have a sense of calm and are encouraged to prioritise your own wellbeing

it is not unfeminist to need support even in a partnership. Often, the right one can be radical itself

remember, to run a marathon requires training, routine, support, endurance and momentum

to the sisterhood, rest is radical. rest is resistance. rest is resilience

tonight, we rest.

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